Inventing The Presidency

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Such pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Working closely with Knox, Washington devised a policy designed to create several sovereign Indian “homelands.” He concurred when Knox insisted that “the independent tribes of indians ought to be considered as foreign nations, not as the subjects of any particular State.” Treaties with these tribes ought to be regarded as binding contracts with the federal government, whose jurisdiction could not be compromised: “Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the Soil. . . . To dispossess them . . . would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation.” A more coercive policy of outright confiscation, Washington believed, would constitute a moral failure that “would stain the character of the nation.” He sought to avoid the outcome—Indian removal—that occurred more than 40 years later under Andrew Jackson. Instead, he envisioned multiple sanctuaries under tribal control that would be bypassed by the surging wave of white settlers and whose occupants would gradually, over the course of the next century, become assimilated as full-fledged American citizens.

Attempting to make this vision a reality occupied more of Washington’s time and energy than any other foreign or domestic issue during his first term. Success depended on finding leaders willing to negotiate yet powerful enough to impose a settlement on other tribes. Knox and Washington found a charismatic Creek chief of mixed blood named Alexander McGillivray, a literate man whose diplomatic skills and survival instincts made him the Indian version of France’s Talleyrand, and in the summer of 1790 Washington hosted McGillivray and 26 chiefs for several weeks of official dinners, parades, and diplomatic ceremonies more lavish than any European delegation enjoyed. (McGillivray expected and received a personal bribe of $1,200 a year to offset the bribe the Spanish were already paying him not to negotiate with the Americans.) Washington and the chiefs locked arms in Indian style and invoked the Great Spirit, and then the chiefs made their marks on the Treaty of New York, redrawing the borders for a sovereign Creek Nation. Washington reinforced the terms of the treaty by issuing the Proclamation of 1790, an Executive Order forbidding private or state encroachments on all Indian lands guaranteed by treaty with the United States.

But the President soon found that it was one thing to proclaim and quite another to sustain. The Georgia legislature defied the proclamation by making a thoroughly corrupt bargain to sell more than 15 million acres on its western border to speculators calling themselves the Yazoo Companies, thereby rendering the Treaty of New York a worthless piece of paper. In the northern district above the Ohio, no equivalent to McGillivray could be found, mostly because the Six Nations, which Washington could remember as a potent force in the region, had been virtually destroyed in the War for Independence and could no longer exercise hegemony over the Ohio Valley tribes.

Washington was forced to approve a series of military expeditions into the Ohio Valley to put down uprisings by the Miamis, Wyandots, and Shawnees, even though he believed that the chief culprits were white vigilante groups determined to provoke hostilities. The Indian side of the story, he complained, would never make it into the history books: “They, poor wretches, have no press thro’ which their grievances are related; and it is well known, that when one side only of a Story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it, insensibly.” Worse still, the expedition commanded by Arthur St. Clair was virtually annihilated in the fall of 1791—reading St. Clair’s battle orders is like watching Custer prepare for the Little Bighorn—thereby creating white martyrs and provoking congressional cries for reprisals in what had become an escalating cycle of violence that defied Washington’s efforts at conciliation.

Eventually the President was forced to acknowledge that his vision of secure Indian sanctuaries could not be enforced. “I believe scarcely any thing short of a Chinese wall,” he lamented, “will restrain Land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian country.” Knox concurred, estimating that federal control on the frontier would require an arc of forts from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, garrisoned by no less than 50,000 troops. This was a logistical, economic, and political impossibility. Washington’s vision of peaceful coexistence also required that federal jurisdiction over the states as the ultimate guarantor of all treaties be recognized as supreme, which helps explain why he was so passionate about the issue, but also why it could never happen. If a just accommodation with the Native American populations was the major preoccupation of his first term, it was also the singular failure.